Thursday, December 3, 2009



       Questions remain about Obama’s bizarre decision to escalate in Afghanistan.  Why did Obama delay his decision on escalating in Afghanistan for several weeks? After all he could have truckled to the military-industrial elite without the rigamarole and appeared with the tin strength, as Andrew Sullivan has suggested,  of a more eloquent Bush.   What were the issues of contention on which Obama eventually, after being skeptical, gave in to the rationale of General Stanley McChrystal and Joint Chiefs of Staff head Michael Mullen?  Why, after promising change in Washington – a smarter, less belligerent, more respectful of others’ interests, more negotiation-oriented Empire - and going some way to delivering it, has Obama collapsed to the self-destructive warmongering and hardly disguised Imperial “crusade” against Muslims – the treatment of Muslims as lesser beings, making the life of a supposed Muslim enemy and  more importantly, civilians, of vastly less worth (30 to 100 times in Stephen Walt’s cautious estimate in the second article below*)  than an American life? Why does Obama, originally an anti-war figure about Iraq, believe that the Empire can have military control in far off places, over people of another language, culture and religion,  that it occupies (see Andrew Bacevich here)?

      I use the term corrupt to characterize this decision and the American war complex in the ancient sense of embodying a tyrannical, particular interest rather than a common good, both for America and internationally.  Obama served poor black people as a community organizer in Chicago.  His words in Dreams from my Father are moving.  He knows the words of King and Gandhi and sometimes incorporates parallels when speaking.  To many volunteers, he seemed "clean" compared to many Democratic politicians.  That just changed.

      A first pass at answering the questions posed above appeared in the mainstream press the day before the speech.  The New York Times published an excellent op ed piece by Bob Herbert  here.  It made the point that two party electoral competition leads to continual pressure from the Right on imperial policy.  There is always a reason to spend more money on war, no matter how irrational, no matter how broke most Americans are.

       The day after Obama's speech, the mainstream media cultivated lies and clichés.  On CNN yesterday, I watched back to back snippets of Robert Gates, Hilary Clinton, General Mullen, General McChrystal rapturously lecturing the troops (billed falsely as what the soldiers in Afghanistan think) and an air-headed pro-war commentator about whom the anchor enthused.  No critics even of the establishment sort (Consider Congressman David Obey or Dennis Kucinich for example) were allowed in this charmed circle of commentary.  Featuring once again the rapturous words of McChrystal, National Public Radio, as in the Iraq aggression, morphs into National Pentagon Radio (amusingly, coverage on CNN was not the scoop that the CNN anchor proclaimed; that CNN was the sole “embedded” and panting lapdog…). 1984 has nothing on this.

           But to gain insight into the truth, one might also consider Glenn Greenwald’s recent column at on the potential Democratic presidential candidate – almost Obama’s vice-president – Evan Bayh.  While posing as a "budget buster," Bayh  pushes endless military spending (why don’t we just give the keys to America to the Chinese, since the borrowing of Bush, continuing that of Reagan and the Democrats, has made America, both to enhance militarism, and offer grotesque tax cuts to the top 1/10 of 1%, dependent on  – over time in thrall to -  China?  American imperialists -  the fake tough guys  who have run the American economy  into the ground and are harming the American people – 17.5% unemployment with at most, enough stimulus – thanks, however,  to Obama and the Democrats – to make the rate of increase less steep as I write.  Dennis Kucinich has some good comments on this and the empire of bases on Democracynow yesterday here.   Unemployment is a great political peril for Obama and the country (the rise of a fascism extending deep into the leadership of the Republican party) promoted by a bipartisan elite fostering of the big banks,  One should add to this heedlessness about ordinary people being foreclosed, lack of money for education, bankrupticies and unnecessary death due to the “insurance” companies (again, the Democrats are better on this issue), and the like.  

        The election of Obama revived hope.  But such policies have created hopelessness in the future and homelessness including for many of the young.  Led now by Obama, the elite attempts to mobilize a manufactured passion for ever more self-destructive and endless war.  In the Political Economy of International Politics (1987), Robert Gilpin spoke eloquently and with some outrage on these themes in the 1980s (see my  Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy, ch. 1).  Greenwald names his column  The Face of Rotted Washington  here.  It is an extreme title.  Sadly given this escalation, it seems accurate.  

       All of this explains the reactionary two-step to some extent, how the Republicans and other corrupt politicians like Lieberman and Bayh force American foreign policy down an ever more obviously self-destructive and self-defeating path.  See here.

       But what was the internal dynamic in the administration that defeated Obama’s common sense?  Gareth Porter yestereday had a revelatory article on Inter-press service (an international reporting service, headquartered in Rome and not  distributed to a mass audience in the United States) which describes this dynamic.  Obama had appointed McChrystal (the “friend of 33 generations of Kagans” as Andrew Sullivan quips). During Presidential deliberations about Afghanistan,  he and Mullen spoke to the press about the supposed need to  escalate.  They were not loyal to the commander in chief, the purported military virtue ( Obama and his staff were angry about this).   They were loyal only to the military industrial media complex.  They knew that they had the wind of the complex at their back, that Obama, in thinking about the policy, had an opportunity to move in a new direction (to pull back America’s commitment in Afghanistan, to start to leave), but was isolated in the elite.

         Perhaps one should dwell for a moment on the crassness of McChrystal and Mullen.  When one passes the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and moves on up, new jobs open up.  War is first and foremost an engine of promotion.  But then a former General can become a multimillionaire working for the weapons industry.  At the same time, he can become an “expert” commentator on MSNCC and CMM, drumming up support for every new war and for one’s companies weapons.  The New York Times commendably did a big expose on this corrupt practice a  year ago (a little late, given years of braying "expert" opinions for dollars during and after the aggression against Iraq), and yesterday, one of the chief culprits General Barry McCaffery, braying loudly for more troops and no "timelines" on MSNBC  was exposed, yet again, for failing  to announce his executive role at weapons manufacturers Dyncorp and McNeil Technologies (for a list of recent contract awards procured by McCaffery, see here).President Eisenhower warned against the military-industrial complex; what we now have is not just reporters in bed with the troops but sycophant anchors in bed with corrupt (former) generals.

        The escalation is a defeat for everything decent Obama represented, and something that may ultimately doom him politically.  The young people who supported him will turn away in droves.  But one should never underestimate the degradation of the Republicans; the choice between Obama and say, Palin or Huckabee or Romney, short of continuing depression, will not come out in favor of the latter.  Not greatness or at least decent change, but ekeing out a win over a greater evil: this  is the sick political calculation of Rahm Emmanuel and Barack Obama. 

         Obama's words prettified a counterproductive policy.  But there were two positive points about the speech.  As Glenn Greenwald stressed here, Obama emphasized only an American national interest rationale for extending the war.  Obama is thus a kind of Brent Scowcroft Republican in foreign policy.  No phony crusade for democracy and human rights or for the rights of women in Afghanistan (since the US supported the Mujahadeen – later the Taliban - as Freedom Fighters in Reagan’s words and destroyed a regime in which 70% of teachers were women, this claim by Laura and George Bush was always hypocritical).  Obama is particularly concerned to emphasize a realist element of “mutual interests,” the US national interest in conversation with others’ national interests; he seeks some sort of intelligent rapprochement with Iran, Russia and others.  Unlike his predecessor, he does not for instance kidnap  English Pakistani immigrants like Moazzem Begg who sought to fight Indian oppression in Kashmir, torture them in Bagram and Guantanamo for 5 years, and then let them go (the British government held Begg for 5 hours on his return and then released him).  Obama's policy was welcomed by the rest of the world.  And yet the escalation in Afghanistan, despite the more intelligent rhetoric, reverses most of these gains. 

        Second, Obama does not propose to reconstruct Afghanistan.  He focuses on Al-Qaeda with at least a potential for some drawdown of forces in 2011.  Sullivan here offers the interesting conjecture that he seeks through drone strikes in Pakistan to kill Bin-Laden.  The latter would be a coup in the United States and persuade many that he is an effective, even lethal leader (a smart observation).  But Andrew misses the point that the US will still kill an enormous number of civilians in Pakistan (not to mention in making war in Afghanistan; McChrystal likes to deceive himself and the rest of us that a modern war of colonial occupation by soldiers who do not speak the language, respect the religion, or have the foggiest idea of customs, can be made something else).  Even if Obama succeeds in killing Bin Laden (as is quite unlikely given US’s  limited intelligence “assets” in the tribal areas), his policy will still radically undermine the regime in Pakistan and strengthen Al-Qaida and the Taliban within it.

        The Republicans,  Lieberman and Evan Bayh and other slithery “Democrats” (apologies to serpents) will still try to take Obama down.

       Obama and his National Security Advisor James Jones rightly raised the disconnect between fighting the Taliban, particularly in Afghanistan, and doing anything serious to stop Al-Qaida.  If the United States divides the Taliban (now a public part of its goal) and isolates the 100 or so members of Al-Qaida (an intelligence estimate, probably inept, but in any case, not a large number), Al-Qaida  still has a haven in Pakistan.  But sending more troops to Afghanistan will do nothing to wind down Al-Qaeda in Pakistan.  Now the Obama administration is putting more effort into Pakistan.  But continuing to occupy two Muslim countries, supporting corrupt leaders, and pretending to be a “partner,” not a dominator, will persuade no one there of the United States’ good intentions. 

       This escalation is thus the counterproductive flailing of a military-industrial-intelligence- expert- media elite which has imperial arrogance but no common sense.  To provide some context about how badly worked out the policy is,  even with over the border “covert” raids (criminal operations by the US special forces, well known to civilian victims far and wide) and firing off drones from Langley (see David Sanger and Eric Schmitt "Between the Lines: an Expansion in Pakistan" in the New York Times here), we might kill some Al-Qaida leaders, possibly including Bin-Laden, but we will 1) wantonly murder Pakistani civilians and innocents, including family members, which will breed hostility to us and the Pakistan government – our ally – of a very dangerous and enduring sort; 2) the US will thus strengthen the Taliban in Pakistan with its threat, in alliance with some members of the ISI, to take over the government and place nuclear weapons in the hands of those  who hate the United States.   Isn’t preventing this the supposed rationale of the whole “policy’ as James Jones proclaimed on NPR this morning?  

        Despite the comparative intelligence of Obama and his advisors, the escalation is just the working of the dead machine, sustaining the Imperial arrogance and ignorance of Bush and Cheney.    The emptiness of the Colonel Blimps – Kagans - McChrystal stands before us (I am being unkind to Colonel Blimp who was an airhead but not a torturer), 3) two attempts occurred on Musharraf’s life a couple of years ago; Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.  Why do we think escalating in Afghanistan, plus providing some more military and perhaps economic aid to Pakistan along with more CIA killings of a few members of Al-Qaeda and many civilians will help rather than doom the leadership we favor there? 4)  the real breeding ground for Al-Qaida is the just revulsion against and resistance to the brutal Indian occupation of Kashmir.  See Must Obama find the right war here.  But there is no war to be made over Kashmir. 

        Kashmir should be the center of American policy.  Obama’s speech – in this respect, a farce – did not mention it.  See Nir Rosen on Democracynow here.  5) the United States continues to occupy two Muslim countries (a cause of Muslim fear of the United States, not altered by Obama’s promise that we are not occupiers or patrons, but partners, that we wish to leave).   Even Obama, some might suspect, has his eye belligerently on others, for instance Iran. Obama reproduced the Bush rationale for the initial aggression in a classier way at the beginning of his speech, down to the 45 allies.  But Bush went to war immediately, after September 11th, with madness, without any attempt at serious justification, making a political move rather than trying to find the guilty (the actual gang was mainly from Saudi Arabia); the madness and incompetence were mirrored in Bush’s, Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s allowing Bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora sooner than engage more American troops in fighting; war, war, ever more war and, when it comes to doing something militarily like killing Bin Laden,  Rumsfeldian war on the cheap – what a perverse combination!  Perhaps soulless is the word to name it. 

      To his credit, Obama has, in fact,  scaled back belligerence toward Iran.  Yet the escalation in Afghanistan, despite a depression, despite the fact that  we are broke, is not a hopeful sign that Obama will be able to stop a renewed campaign to “bombbombbomb bombbomb Iran” (after the speech, CBS news featured  McCain with his “critique” of timelines).  There has been a lot of criticism of the crazed Cheney – fearing an eventual war crimes investigation, praying and braying for reactionary dictatorship here; even Chris Matthews, a commentator who blows with the mainstream winds, rightly names Cheney “a troll.”  But  on war, war and more war, McCain strikes me as almost as crazed a figure, and today, a far more influential one.  

       6) A central issue of oppression and Muslim grievance is the American arming of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and acquiescence in the Israeli elite's refusal to act for a two state solution.  Every helicopter in the occupied territories, protecting Israel’s abuses (the killing of 300 children in Gaza compared to the Hamas murder of one 7 year old Israeli child; the driving of over four thousand Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem out last year) is an Apache made in the United States.    The apt word colonial is now coming commonly into use about the occupation – Israel desparately strives to put the genii back in the bottle, but the slaughter in Gaza has set it free.    Apartheid or genocide under the UN convention are, sadly, just as accurate.  Israel is a small country, originally carved out colonially, in response to the genocide against Jews in Europe,  at the expense of the Palestinians.  

        The tale of the heroic democracy surrounded by hostile Arabs worked for a long time and is still uttered regularly by American politicians under the influence of AIPAC.  But in addition to the reality  of Israeli injustice toward Palestinians who had done no wrong to them (both in the initial settling and in the extremely dangerous to the survival of Israel post 1967 occupation),  the Israeli leadership has steadily divided up Palestine, launched illegal settlements, and resisted any attempt to make peace in the name of fighting any “terrorists” who would launch assaults. Cries about terrorism (sadly, Israel has been the aggressor against Palestinian civilians) has been a cover for a “greater Israel” project.  But the European Union is now about to issue a report saying that East Jerusalem must be the capital of Palestine in a two state solution, that any adjustment of the 1967 borders must be by agreement, and that all the settlements are in plain violation of international law. 

        Israel is trying to get the European Union not to release the report, but will not succeed.  In these circumstance, Obama’s initial attempt to get Israel to freeze the settlements and negotiate a two state solution was decent and promising.  But his backing down is a renewed cause for widespread anger at the United States and Israel, and of course, contributes to an atmosphere where some can be recruited to Al-Qaida.  Obama will have a chance to support the European Union’s report.  If he does, some of the effect of his previous caving in on the settlements will be mitigated. Even so, the escalation in Afghanistan will dwarf the good effects of this best case scenario.  

          This list of 6 factors provides a context for the likely growth of Al-Qaida.  Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan and firing more drones into Pakistan (Af-Pak as he put it in his speech) will make Muslims more fearful of the United States.  Obama spoke of Iraq as a “dumb war.”   One should beware the boomerang of one's own words.  The smart and eloquent Obama exhibits hubris; the escalation is Bush-level dumb (see Dan Froomkin, Obama's Questions for Obama here).

        Worse yet, an awful pattern is forming.  Obama was initially decent but backed down with Israel.  Obama tried to find a way out, but backed down on Afghanistan.  Obama spoke last night of human rights and closing Guantanamo, but the Pentagon’s secret prison at Bagram continues and he pursues military trials and protects “state secrets.”  What will happen with Iran over the next months?  Obama has initiated a decent American policy towards dealing with it, but will the military-industrial elite allow him to pursue it?  Obama could block them, just as he could have cashiered McChrystal and not escalated in Afghanistan.  But will he? 

      On the precise dynamic in the cabinet, James Jones, Obama’s national security advisor, gave an interview  rightly disconnecting Al Qaida from the Taliban.    Vice President Biden offered Obama’s reasons for thinking that the focus should not be more troops in Afghanistan but efforts – drone murder and aid – in Pakistan.  They and Obama were comparatively sane imperialists.

         But the other Trojan horse in the administration was Robert Gates.  Obama strives for bipartisan consensus (excluding only ordinary people from below, his supporters, the “leftists” who prefer universal health care or exit from Afghanistan).  Here the price is clear.   If Gates was decent during  the horror of the Bush-Cheney regime, he is today a horror in the Obama regime.  As the article by Gareth Porter below underlines, he put together a coalition in the adminstration, particularly involving Hilary Clinton, to make the McChrystal-Mullen message part of a united, military-politician-elite administrator (I don’t think the word civilian is quite appropriate) front pushing Obama not to think about what might actually help defeat Al-Qaeda, get our troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, deal with unemployment and get a start of a green economy, but to knuckle under.  Gates was the key player, and to him – as well as Obama for giving in – falls the primary blame.  But Obama at least has some better thoughts or impulses, some desire to get out, some hope of ending America’s counterproductive colonial/imperial occupations.

         In contrast, one can see the even more complete degradation of Hilary Clinton.  Like most Democrats, Hillary has no longer a mind of her own on foreign policy.  She is mere political calculation.  By being tough on the issue, she sets herself up to run again in 2016 (whether Obama wins or loses in 2012).  As in the campaign where her tragedy was glaring (there was no Hillary, just a pretend “tough guy"), so again.  To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there is, sadly, no Hillary in Hillary.

         But Obama is today only a shade better, the prisoner of the complex, not a leader in the direction of a more sensible or less destructive American imperialism.  The Obama administration has reached its nadir.

        The only hope is that in 2011, a long way off, Obama can break free of the tentacles of the military-industrial-political-media-expert complex.  But it will take more resourcefulness – and he showed far more resourcefulness in trying to escape than any other likely American President would have – than may be possible for a leader of a militarized empire.  This was a profound experiment in the limits of American democracy.  Given our “military-industrial addiction” (George Kennan, 1984 introduction to American Diplomacy; Gilbert, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 2), once the United States enters a vicious, aimless and losing war as in Iraq or Afghanistan, can a decent leader extract the country?  The kind of political competition we have coupled with the complex make this extraordinarily difficult.  

         Only a movement against Obama’s policy from below in combination with events and movements in Afghanistan (speaking for democrats there, Malalai Joya has described the Karzai regime as drug-runners, including his brother, and warlords, with a totalitarian farce of an “election” as a mandate – see here) might force a decent option.  This is Obama’s tragedy and ours.

*I do not share Walt's enthusiasm for the first Gulf War, think that John Pilger was right in assessing the UN boycott in Iraq, at American and British behest, as genocidal,  and think Walt's estimates not just cautious but vastly understated.  His basic point, however, is excellent and could transform the way many of us think about these occupations.

 Interpress Service, December 2, 2009

Obama Had Rejected His Own Speech's Surge Rationale

by Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama presented a case Tuesday for sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan that included both soaring rhetoric and a new emphasis on its necessity for U.S. national security.

Obama said the escalation was for a "vital national interest" and invoked the threat of attacks from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, asserting that such attacks "are now being planned as I speak". 

Despite Obama's embrace of these new national security arguments, however, he has rejected within the past few weeks the critical link in the national security argument for deploying tens of thousands of additional troops - the allegedly indissoluble link between the Taliban insurgency and al Qaeda. 

Proponents of escalation have insisted that the Taliban would inevitably provide new sanctuaries for al Qaeda terrorists inside Afghanistan unless the U.S. counterinsurgency mission was successful. 

But during September and October, Obama sought to fend off escalation in Afghanistan in part by suggesting through other White House officials that the interests of the Taliban were no longer coincident with those of al Qaeda. 

In fact, intense political maneuvering between Obama and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, over the latter's troop increase request revolved primarily around the issue of whether the defeat of the Taliban was necessary to U.S. anti-al Qaeda strategy. 

The first round of the effort was triggered by the leak of McChrystal's "initial assessment", with its warning of "mission failure" if his troop deployment request was rejected. The White House fought back with anonymous comments quoted in the Washington Post Sep. 21 that the military was trying to push Obama into a corner on the troop deployment issue. 

One of the anonymous senior officials criticised a statement by Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the war in Afghanistan would "probably need more forces". 

To avoid being outmaneuvered by the military, Obama suggested in a press conference that the legitimacy of the Afghan government might now be so damaged by the blatantly fraudulent Aug. 20 election as to put into question a counterinsurgency strategy such as the one advanced in McChrystal's assessment. 

Obama also raised a red flag about the conventional argument from national security, saying he wasn't going to "think that by sending more troops, we're automatically going to make Americans safe". 

Within a week, his national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, began to raise that issue explicitly. 

In an interview with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Jones suggested the question of why al Qaeda would want to move out of its present sanctuary in Pakistan to the uncertainties of Afghanistan would be one that the White House would be raising in response to McChrystal's troop request. 

McChrystal's rejoinder came in a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London Oct. 1, in which he went further than any previous official rationale for the war. "[W]hen the Taliban has success," said McChrystal, "that provides sanctuary from which al Qaeda can operate transnationally." 

He was apparently arguing the Taliban wouldn't even have to seize power nationally to provide a sanctuary for al Qaeda. 

Only three days later, however, the New York Times reported that "senior administration officials" were saying privately that Obama's national security team was now "arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States". 

That "shift in thinking", as the Times reported, was an obvious indication that the White House was preparing to pursue a strategy that would not require the additional troops McChrystal was requesting because the Taliban need not be defeated. 

One of the senior officials interviewed by Times said the administration was now defining the Taliban as a group that "does not express ambitions of attacking the United States". The Taliban were aligned with al Qaeda "mainly on the tactical front", said the official. 

A second theme introduced by the official was that the Taliban could not be eliminated because it was too deeply entrenched in the country – quite a different goal from that of the counterinsurgency war proposed by McChrystal. 

That was an expression of resistance to what was soon reported to be a McChrystal request for a "low risk" option of 80,000 troops, combined with a suggestion that 20,000 troops would be the "high risk" option. 

But Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates was determined to turn the White House around on the issue of McChrystal's request. He was well aware of Obama's political sensitivity about not being seen as on the wrong side of his national security team, and he effectively used that to force the issue. 

Gates worked with McChrystal, Mullen, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a plan that would be presented to the White House as their consensus position on Afghanistan strategy. 

The plan, as the New York Times reported Oct. 27, was presented by an administration official as a compromise between the plan put forth by Vice President Joseph Biden for concentrating essentially on al Qaeda, and McChrystal's counterinsurgency plan. It would be ostensibly aimed at protecting about 10 population centres, leaving the rest of the country to be handled by Special Operations Forces with the assistance of drones and air power. 

But the catch was that McChrystal was demanding an expansive definition of "population centres", which would include most of the Taliban heartland of the country. 

McChrystal was still going to get his counterinsurgency war under the Gates plan. 

Notably absent from the Times report was any suggestion that Obama had given even tentative approval to the proposal. Only Obama's advisers were said to be "coalescing around" the proposal. But "administration officials" confidently asserted that the only issue remaining was how many more troops would be required to "guard the vital parts of the country". 

That confidence was evidently based on the fact that Obama's national security team had already agreed on the options that would be presented to the president for decision. Two weeks after that report, Obama's press secretary Robert Gibbs said he would consider four different options at a meeting with his national security team Nov. 11. 

The four options, as the Times reported the day of the meeting, ranged from a low-end option of 20,000 to roughly 40,000 troops. And Gates, Mullen and Clinton had "coalesced around" the middle option of about 30,000 troops. 

Gates and his allies had thus defined the options and stacked the deck in favour of the one they were going to support. And the fact that Obama's national security was lined up in support of that option was already on the public record. 

It was a textbook demonstration of how the national security apparatus ensures that its policy preference on issues of military force prevail in the White House. 

Although Obama bowed to pressure from his major national security advisers to agree to the 30,000 troops, his conviction that the Taliban is not necessarily a mortal enemy of the United States could influence future White House policy decisions on Afghanistan. 

Obama's speech even included the suggestion that the defeat of the Taliban was not necessary to U.S. security. That point could be used by Obama to justify future military or diplomatic moves to extract the United States from the quagmire he appeared to fear only a few weeks ago.

© 2009 IPS North America


Stephen Walt, Foreign Policy blog

Why they hate us (II): How many Muslims has the U.S. killed in the past 30 years?

Mon, 11/30/2009 

Tom Friedman had an especially fatuous column in Sunday's New York Times, which is saying something given his well-established capacity for smug self-assurance. According to Friedman, the big challenge we face in the Arab and Islamic world is "the Narrative" -- his patronizing term for Muslim views about America's supposedly negative role in the region. If Muslims weren't so irrational, he thinks, they would recognize that "U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny." He concedes that we made a few mistakes here and there (such as at Abu Ghraib), but the real problem is all those anti-American fairy tales that Muslims tell each other to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions.

I heard a different take on this subject at a recent conference on U.S. relations with the Islamic world. In addition to hearing a diverse set of views from different Islamic countries, one of the other participants (a prominent English journalist) put it quite simply. "If the United States wants to improve its image in the Islamic world," he said, "it should stop killing Muslims."

Now I don't think the issue is quite that simple, but the comment got me thinking: How many Muslims has the United States killed in the past thirty years, and how many Americans have been killed by Muslims? Coming up with a precise answer to this question is probably impossible, but it is also not necessary, because the rough numbers are so clearly lopsided.

Here's my back-of-the-envelope analysis, based on estimates deliberately chosen to favor the United States. Specifically, I have taken the low estimates of Muslim fatalities, along with much more reliable figures for U.S. deaths.

To repeat: I have deliberately selected "low-end" estimates for Muslim fatalities, so these figures present the "best case" for the United States. Even so, the United States has killed nearly 30 Muslims for every American lost. The real ratio is probably much higher, and a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities (based mostly on higher estimates of "excess deaths" in Iraq due to the sanctions regime and the post-2003 occupation) is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost.

Figures like these should be used with caution, of course, and several obvious caveats apply. To begin with, the United States is not solely responsible for some of those fatalities, most notably in the case of the "excess deaths" attributable to the U.N. sanctions regime against Iraq. Saddam Hussein clearly deserves much of the blame for these "excess deaths," insofar as he could have complied with Security Council resolutions and gotten the sanctions lifted or used the "oil for food" problem properly. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the United States (and the other SC members) knew that keeping the sanctions in place would cause tens of thousands of innocent people to die and we went ahead anyway. 

Similarly, the United States is not solely to blame for the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq after the 2003 invasion. U.S. forces killed many Iraqis, to be sure, but plenty of Shiites, Kurds, Sunnis, and foreign infiltrators were pulling triggers and planting bombs too. Yet it is still the case that the United States invaded a country that had not attacked us, dismantled its regime, and took hardly any precautions to prevent the (predictable) outbreak of violence. Having uncapped the volcano, we are hardly blameless, and that goes for pundits like Friedman who enthusiastically endorsed the original invasion.

Third, the fact that people died as a result of certain U.S. actions does not by itself mean that those policy decisions were wrong. I'm a realist, and I accept the unfortunate fact that international politics is a rough business and sometimes innocent people die as a result of actions that may in fact be justifiable. For example, I don't think it was wrong to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 or to topple the Taliban in 2001. Nor do I think it was wrong to try to catch Bin Laden -- even though people died in the attempt -- and I would support similar efforts to capture him today even if it placed more people at risk. In other words, a full assessment of U.S. policy would have to weigh these regrettable costs against the alleged benefits to the United States itself or the international community as a whole. 

Yet if you really want to know "why they hate us," the numbers presented above cannot be ignored. Even if we view these figures with skepticism and discount the numbers a lot, the fact remains that the United States has killed a very large number of Arab or Muslim individuals over the past three decades. Even though we had just cause and the right intentions in some cases (as in the first Gulf War), our actions were indefensible (maybe even criminal) in others. 

It is also striking to observe that virtually all of the Muslim deaths were the direct or indirect consequence of official U.S. government policy. By contrast, most of the Americans killed by Muslims were the victims of non-state terrorist groups such as al Qaeda or the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans should also bear in mind that the figures reported above omit the Arabs and Muslims killed by Israel in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank. Given our generous and unconditional support for Israel's policy towards the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular, Muslims rightly hold us partly responsible for those victims too.

Contrary to what Friedman thinks, our real problem isn't a fictitious Muslim "narrative" about America's role in the region; it is mostly the actual things we have been doing in recent years. To say that in no way justifies anti-American terrorism or absolves other societies of responsibility for their own mistakes or misdeeds. But the self-righteousness on display in Friedman's op-ed isn't just simplistic; it is actively harmful. Why? Because whitewashing our own misconduct makes it harder for Americans to figure out why their country is so unpopular and makes us less likely to consider different (and more effective) approaches.

Some degree of anti-Americanism may reflect ideology, distorted history, or a foreign government's attempt to shift blame onto others (a practice that all governments indulge in), but a lot of it is the inevitable result of policies that the American people have supported in the past. When you kill tens of thousands of people in other countries -- and sometimes for no good reason -- you shouldn't be surprised when people in those countries are enraged by this behavior and interested in revenge. After all, how did we react after September 11? 

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